Cleaning Teeth: What to Expect

Professional dental cleaning at a dental office is an important way to maintain your oral health. Usually done by a dental hygienist, a dental cleaning helps to remove plaque from your teeth to prevent gum disease and cavities. At your checkup, your dentist may also notice signs of tooth decay and other oral health problems.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends seeing your dentist at least once a year for a dental checkup and professional cleaning with a dental hygienist. The American Dental Association (ADA) also recommends having your teeth professionally cleaned once or twice a year.

Here’s what to expect at your next dental cleaning appointment, including the exam, plaque removal, professional brushing and flossing, and fluoride treatment.

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At your dental practice, you lie back in a comfortable chair to have your teeth examined and cleaned.

Before brushing your teeth, your dental hygienist will start by examining your gums, teeth and mouth with a mirror. If they notice any symptoms of underlying oral health problems, they can let your dentist know if they should continue with your cleaning session.

At the end of your cleaning, your dentist will usually be called in to examine your teeth and gums, looking for signs of current or potential oral problems. Your dentist can also give you tips on how to brush and floss more effectively at home, which is essential for maintaining your oral health.

The importance of oral health

The most common oral diseases are periodontitis (gum disease), such as gingivitis (gum disease) and periodontitis (damaging gum disease), as well as dental caries (also called tooth decay or cavities) and oral cancer.

Poor oral health is also linked to chronic and acute conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and stroke. In pregnant people, oral health problems have been linked to preterm birth and low birth weight.

Removal of plaque and tartar

Gum disease and tooth decay are caused by the build-up of plaque. Plaque contains bacteria that break down your tooth enamel over time. If left untreated, plaque can harden into tartar and lead to cavities, gingivitis (gum disease), or chronic periodontitis (advanced gum disease).

The purpose of professional dental cleaning is to remove plaque and tartar. Once plaque hardens into tartar, it cannot be removed with a conventional toothbrush at home.

Your dental hygienist will use a scraper, ultrasonic scaler, and electric brush to remove these deposits between your teeth and along your gums.

If you already have signs of gum disease, your dental hygienist may need to perform a thorough cleaning with metal tools or ultrasound instruments to remove plaque buildup under the gums. This process is called scaling and planing.

Gum disease

More than 47% of U.S. adults age 30 and older show signs of periodontal disease. Untreated gingivitis and periodontitis can cause inflammation, bleeding gums, mouth pain and even tooth loss.

Professional brushing and flossing

Your dental hygienist will brush your teeth with an electric brushing aid and granular toothpaste.

After polishing your teeth, your dental hygienist will use an interdental cleaner to floss in hard-to-reach areas. Flossing removes food particles from between your teeth and helps prevent further plaque buildup and gingivitis.

Fluoride treatment

Your professional dental cleaning session usually concludes with a fluoride rinse and a fluoride varnish, which is painted on your teeth to remineralize (repair) your enamel and prevent cavities. Fluoride is a mineral that protects your tooth enamel from tooth decay.

Dental X-rays

Some dental checkups may include X-ray imaging of your teeth, jaw, and mouth. If you visit a dentist regularly, you will most likely get dental X-rays once a year.


Having your teeth professionally cleaned at a dental office at least once or twice a year can help remove plaque and tartar, prevent gum disease and cavities, and remove stains. Professional dental cleaning is an important step in maintaining your oral health.

During a professional dental cleaning, a dental hygienist removes plaque and tartar with a metal tool. Then they will brush and floss your teeth and use a fluoride treatment to protect you from tooth decay. Your dentist will also examine your teeth and mouth for signs or symptoms of oral health.

A word from Verywell

Professional dental cleaning is a good way to maintain your oral hygiene and prevent dental problems in the future. Schedule at least one professional cleaning with your dentist every year to take care of your oral health.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How much does brushing your teeth cost?

    The cost of professional dental cleaning varies based on your location, insurance plan, and dental practice. Some estimates suggest that a professional teeth cleaning session with a dental hygienist costs $90-$120 in the United States. Some dental insurance policies cover 15% to 50% of your costs.

  • How long does it take to brush your teeth?

    From start to finish, a typical professional dental cleaning session at a dental office takes 30-60 minutes. Your appointment may take longer if you need other tests or treatments, such as X-rays. It may also take longer if you have a lot of plaque or if your dentist detects problems with your teeth or mouth.

By Laura Dorwart

Laura Dorwart is a health journalist with a particular interest in mental health, pregnancy-related conditions and disability rights. She has published work in VICE, SELF, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Week, HuffPost, BuzzFeed Reader, Catapult, Pacific Standard,, Insider,, TalkPoverty, and many other outlets.

Cleaning Teeth: What to Expect

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